“Folk music is high-class music, but there’s a lot of low class people singin’ it. Matter of fact, most so-called folk singers don’t even look like folk”
Thus starts one of Abner Jay’s songs: “Cocaine”. A mixture of age-old wit strengthened by his keen eye and a sense for the humorous in life has made him one of the most criminally underrated artists of the last century.
Hailing from the banks of the Swaunee River in South Georgia, Abner Jay locally renowned for his prowess and total abstinence from prophylactics, the father of sixteen children, a broke artist, session musician, residency singer at Tom Flynns Plantation Restaurant, spent the greatest portion of his life cloaked in underachievement. His songs, released on his own label, failed to garner the attention of the outer masses despite being highly regarded amongst such Southern royalty as BB King. With a trailer attached to the back of his car which had been converted into a mobile stage, (complete with drums, mic, PA, comfy chair, the interior of a living room, and the ‘reputed’ 300 year old banjo that lit up the songs about the war, the south, the depression, mules, cocaine and a million other heartaches) he travelled from festival to festival waiting for people to pop a dollar in his collection box before even starting to play.
Abner Jay passed away on his way home from a festival in 1993. A legend was lost forever. One that most people were never aware of to begin with. Only the keenly passionate were able to snap up original vinyl releases which are now long lost in the muddle of boxes and outrageous prices on Ebay. In an ironic twist, the internet has become the portal for his revival. And now passed on from this world, perhaps his multitude of kids can earn a bit of money from the subsequent re-releases.
His voice, his vision, his passion in the long tirades about ex-wives, failed honeymoons, planting cockroaches in his Filet Mignon to avoid having to pay for it, lying flat on his belly while lapping up the sweet waters of the swaunee, trying to find doctors who’ll write prescriptions for cocaine, long lists of animals that are inferior to the humble mule, were in danger of being lost forever to generations to come.
Despite the internet and the ability to immortalize something for safe keeping, it’s rare you meet anyone who knows or listens to Abner Jay. There are only 2 badly recorded live clips on youtube, a smattering of mentions in random newspaper articles, a few dusty records and the phenomenon of word of mouth which is how I in turn came to discover him. It has been with a missionaries zeal that I have burnt discs, told friends, played his songs when Dj’ing, and wrote this article because I truly believe he is worthy of recognition. Not that this changes anything, but whats done is done, and can be undone by our failure to keep his flame alive.
The True Story of Abner Jay:
If there’s a more soulful and tragic song written than “I’m so Depressed”, sung with such gutwrenching honesty and vulnerability, his voice reaching trembling heights, then I am yet to be introduced to it. “Cocaine” starts with the aforementioned rant about Folk music and pauses half way through for Abner to unleash his frustrations on how difficult scoring coke has become, something that Doctors are apparently “supposed to help you out with”. “Vietnam” and “St. James Infirmary Blues” tell tales of either being away from his baby or the ongoing hilarity of getting married for the first time and how conjugal bliss was confounded by attempted murder, blackmail, heavy drug use and wooden legs. “St James” in particular showing Abner’s incredible wit and sarcastic tinge running down the backbone of his recordings. Something that people don’t necessarily get on the first listen, but becomes an increasingly enjoyable side-effect of listening too much.
“Cleo” could very well have been the song of the year back when it was released, if only people would have heard it. A surefire win for those deeply ingrained in the catalogues of Jim Reeves, Elvis and Ricky Nelson . “Woke Up This Morning” spills forth with its frothy, jangly blues legitimate enough to knock any of the hero’s off their pulpits. It´s perhaps the fact that Abner suffered from poverty and hardships his whole life that makes it more real when he sings about them. Not the faux-poser blues sung by a million Americans milked from their mothers golden teat and bludgeoned with dad´s platinum card when it came to buying new guitars.
“My Mule” ranks as one of the most impassioned pop songs that never made it to the top 10. A two minute lovesong about a mule. Spurned full of infectious energy and a voice that could heal the multitudes. ´Old Man River´ with the haunting line “I’m tired of living, but scared of dyin’ brings the listeners deep into the fragile makings of a reclusive genius.
The strength of Abner’s voice is shown in all it’s glory on the song “Georgia Bound”. With almost rockabilly-esque rhythms and the wailings of a man blessed with a remarkable set of vocal chords, and yet cursed to live a life singing residencies in restaurants where most people paid more attention to fitting far too large pieces of meat into their ugly mouths than to sit back and appreciate what was going on on stage.
“The reason young people use drugs” brings a majestic album by a furiously talented chap to a bittersweet close. Claiming a lack of love was the reason people found substitutes in narcotics, it’s perhaps a slight nod to his own taste for the sweet stuff.
I only hope wherever the man may be, he can still see the Swaunee River and perhaps even reach down and fill up his belly with it’s life giving elixir.